Learning from mega-churches
“The essence of leadership is the exercise of influence. The command given to the Christian church by Christ is, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them the things I have taught you.’ (See Matthew 28: 19-20.) This is a direct mandate to provide leadership for nations, instructing them to live according to the principles of the kingdom of God. This commission clearly placed the responsibility for producing the quality leaders that the world needs upon the shoulders of the Christian church.” 
One of the most impactful experiences of the London Advance was my visit to Jesus House Church, London, a mega-church comprised of many native Africans. Dr. Myles Monroe, the guest preacher that particular Sunday, is indeed a man of positive influence. Founder of Bahamas Faith Ministries International, prolific author, international speaker and consultant, and even the recipient of an OBE bestowed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, for his spiritual and social contributions to the national development of the Bahamas, Dr. Monroe is a man to listen to.
But it wasn’t only the preacher who left a lasting impression. From the minute one walks into Jesus House, you get the sense that a lot of thought, planning and prayer have gone into this whole ministry. Nothing has been left undone: the quality of facilities, aesthetics, preaching, worship and ministry systems would inspire anyone to think bigger for God. It certainly had that effect upon me.
There was so much I liked and took away from my time there that Sunday. There was nothing old-fashioned, unattractive, irrelevant or outdated about Jesus House. It’s a ministry that’s growing, a community that’s giving it’s best to God. The lobby is modern and packed with everything you need from food and books, to information and rest areas. I was particularly interested in the banners I saw (refer to slides) which advertised ministries such as its adult Sunday school (“Knowledge is Power”) and it’s Marketplace Ministry (“Extra-ordinary practices; exceptional results”), visual images that represent the values of Jesus House. According to Pink, visual images communicate identity and meaning, “When we enter people’s own spaces – their homes, work spaces or other areas they have appropriated for themselves – we usually encounter photographic displays… This includes photography, which is part of the visual, material and sensory composition of the home and a medium through which people represent and communicate about their identities to themselves and others…”  Jesus House, the spiritual home for many people, communicates a sense of accomplishment and achievement. In other words, they put their identity and values on display, seen also in the number of top end cars I saw in the car park (slide). Some may criticize Christian leaders for driving expensive cars, but as Pink also explains, we are prone to subjective interpretations when analyzing images and displays.  To some, these cars represent indulgence and excessive spending. However for the owners of these cars, the ability to purchase such a vehicle is a visual display of God’s favour and acceptance.
It wasn’t just the practical surroundings that were impactful. Through the worship, preaching and ministry systems, one is encouraged into a different level of faith and expectations, which I loved. People expect God to answer their prayers. I saw one clear illustration of this dependence on the power of prayer when the presider shared during the service how squatters had moved in to the premises next door, which they had purchased for their expansion. How would they remove these unwanted guests? Some would no doubt have called in the police and forced their eviction. Others may have try politely requesting their departure, but not the leadership of Jesus House. Instead they called an all-night prayer meeting, asking the congregation to pray for God’s direct intervention. The next day it was reported that every squatter had peacefully left of his or her own accord.
Parallels with South Korea
One other interesting observation I made from this experience was how Jesus House reminded me of the churches in South Korea. They may be on opposite sides of the globe, but I discerned that there are a number of significant things this African church and South Korean Christians have in common:
- Histories of hardship
- Big dreams, big faith and big churches
- Grand displays of size and accomplishment
- Confidence in the power of prayer
- Expectation of the miraculous
Just sixty years ago, South Korea was a nation devastated by war and poverty, and literally had to start again. Sixty years on, South Koreans are respected worldwide for their dramatic economic recovery:
“During the four decades following the Korean War, it evolved from one of the most abject states in the region to one of the most vibrant, a manufacturing powerhouse that has virtually eradicated poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. In a region of fast growth, since the 1960s Korea has increased its per capita GDP more quickly than any of its neighbors.” 
Intriguingly, alongside this economic resurgence, another internal growth was taking place: the spread of Christianity. At the same time this nation was finding its legs economically, it began to run a good race spiritually. Ask any Christian familiar with this nation and they will tell you that two things it is known for are its dynamic prayer life and it’s mega-churches. South Korea is a nation that may have been brought to its knees in the 1950s, but it seems to have turned to God in prayer in that humble place.
It is interesting that these two expansions – economic and spiritual – took place side by side. Despite the challenges economic recovery and globalization pose to any nation, South Korea has successfully taken it’s place on the global stage, outgrowing it’s neighbor Japan and sending out a huge number of missionaries around the world, second only to the United States.
However, with globalization come challenges. As social theorist Sennett warns, “…the flexible regime of the new capitalism – with its instant global transfers of money, its hi-tech cultural production, and its radical restructuring of the labour market – begets a character structure geared towards the superficial, the fleeting and the fragmented.”  Yet these consequences of globalization seem to have been avoided for the most part, with this nation maintaining its culture and values. What perhaps has made the difference is their pursuit of wisdom, theological in nature. As Ford writes,
“Wisdom is about the good shaping of understanding and of life in the midst of …multiple overwhelmings… Wisdom is not just concerned about more information and knowledge but also about how they relate to other dimensions of reality, and above all how they can serve …comprehensive flourishing. Wisdom therefore deals with dimensions of life that much academic learning tends to bracket out, such as suffering, joy, or the purpose of existence. It might be seen as the most satisfactory overall ‘interest’ for a theologian to have, embracing truth, beauty, and practice in relation to the whole ecology of reality before God.” 
South Korea, though a hi-tech and global society, hasn’t given way to the kind of fragmentation and superficiality that Sennett warns us of. Instead it has flourished economically as it grew in spiritual strength and wisdom. For many South Koreans, by placing God, Biblical principles and values as their cornerstone, this Asian tiger has gone from strength to strength. It could therefore be argued that it wasn’t just their sheer hard work that brought about their economic recovery. Again Ford writes,
“In society as a whole, theology’s responsibility is not just to contribute to public discussion of issues labeled ‘religious’. If the understanding of theology offered in this book is accepted then it is clear that there should be contributions to the shaping of industries, nations, institutions, professions, cultures and practices of all sorts. Theology is obviously concerned too with the shaping of ordinary life in families and relationships, griefs and joys, leisure and work. The wisdom tradition of religions, and their improvisations in response to the new situations and events, help to shape all levels of society and daily life.” 
It seems that religion has given South Korea direction and wisdom that has reached far beyond the wallet. They have found that their pursuit of God shapes both the heart and society just as Ford describes.
I find it interesting that Jesus House and South Korean mega-churches have so much in common: two very different people groups, yet who both suffered a difficult economic history, who turned to God in prayer and faith and who flourished as a result. These two churches have learned to rely on God in faith and prayer, and take great pride in displaying their strengths and accomplishment for all to see. It’s surely no coincidence that the biggest congregation in the world exists in South Korea (slide).
Although mega-churches may draw criticism from some, at the end of the day, leaders within these churches dream bigger and expect more from God, which surely must be commended.
All in all, the entire Sunday service lasted around two and a half hours, but it certainly didn’t feel long. Although my husband and I were two of the very few whites there, we were given a warm welcome. I will never forget what I saw there that day and the people I met. I remember Janet, an elderly woman, who joyfully approached us informing us of how she had just returned from a weekend retreat where the church had just ordained women into ministry. During the service, I joined in with the ‘amens’ and ‘hallelujahs’ with the sister to my left, and I also loved the video announcements, another top quality visual representing their culture and values.
Of course there is no perfect church, and there were a few too many top end cars in the car park for my liking, and the vast majority of members arrived at the service at least twenty minutes late. However overall, I vastly enjoyed my time there and felt more at home in that black church than in some white churches I’ve attended. My faith was greatly encouraged and took away a number of lessons including the importance of expecting more from God in faith and prayer, the benefit of professional systems and facilities, and the correlation between felt need and dependence upon God. In my opinion, Jesus House is an inspiration and they go out of their way to display it.
Learning from my peers
Another significant learning element for me during the Advance was listening and learning from my fellow students. Within the Doctor of Ministry cohort, there are many precious brothers and sisters who are years ahead of me in terms of ministry, and from whom I can learn from much. It’s a wonderful blessing to be able to spend time with these leaders who come from various countries. Being able to sit down with these new friends, to ask them questions on how they do ministry, reach the local community, deal with being a woman in ministry and so on, proved to be a great practical help and encouragement.
For example, on one occasion I sat with Deve, a pastor ministering in Canada, and asked him how he did outreach into the local community. He told me how his church doesn’t do outreach per se, but rather involve the local community into everything they do. They start by discovering the spiritual gifts and passions of church members, and then match them to specific ministries. After that they then find community organizations to partner with. I had never heard of a church reaching out into the community this way before and found his experience and wisdom incredibly insightful. I certainly hope to adopt this method in my church plant.
Also having time to sit down and listen to fellow female ministers from the course proved to be a source of great encouragement and wisdom. I rarely get the opportunity to meet other women in ministry, so to have the opportunity to be around them and feel a bit ‘normal’ was encouraging. Being encouraged by them to ‘focus on what God has given you and be yourself’ was so helpful, especially at this new season of ministry transition.
Another key learning moment was through Mitch, a missions’ professional who has worked in so many cultures and countries. He taught me that what protects a church from sliding spiritually is being outward focused (reaching the lost) and not too inwardly focused. This is such great wisdom that I’ve taken and tucked away, and which I hope to apply in ministry. Even though academic study is necessary, I sometimes struggle with it and find peer-to-peer learning more useful. Engaging with and learning from my peers is a method of learning I therefore hope to take advantage of even further in the future.
Learning from the speakers
Finally, other moments I found inspiring during the advance were from two invited speakers: Shawn Holtzclaw and Steve Chalke.
Having the opportunity to sit with this leadership giant over dinner was a tremendous honour and privilege. A business professional, Shawn has much to offer in the arena of leading an organization. I was so inspired as he spoke and he even offered an encouraging word, which he felt was from God. He told me not to focus on how things appear now in the UK (spiritually) but to believe that God can move here again. I was greatly encouraged and inspired through my time with Mr. Holtzclaw.
Having spent the last ten years benefitting from many North American speakers and leaders, it was a joy to find myself in the room with the well-known British leader, Steve Chalke. I remember Steve from my early years as a new believer and so I was pretty excited to be able to sit in the same room as him and listen attentively to his experience and wisdom. He didn’t disappoint and I was greatly inspired by his large vision. I loved that. I was also surprised by his warm manner and accessibility for such an influential figure.
Overall, the advance was a great learning tool. Being able to spend time with fellow ministers and theologians provided a rich learning experience, which I am able to take and apply as I make plans to church plant and find ways to reach into the local community. After all, it’s the practical application of theology that’s important:
“Good theologians discuss intellectual questions and concern themselves with academic debate because their chief concern is life. They want to know the truth not merely so that they might think properly, but so that they might live properly. They engage in theology not merely to amass knowledge, but also to gain wisdom. Good theology, therefore, brings the theoretical, academic, intellectual aspect of Christian faith into Christian living. In so doing, theology becomes immensely practical – perhaps the most practical endeavor one ever engages in!” 
The wisdom from my peers and lecturers in terms of building ministry and reaching the lost, the visual displays of professionalism and drive for success I observed at Jesus House, and the interesting parallels I could see between South Korea and this black mega-church have certainly left their positive mark.
Elliot, Anthony, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009.
Ford, David F, Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Grenz, Stanley J. and Roger E. Olsen, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996.
McKinsey & Company: Insights and Publications. “South Korea: Finding its Place on the World Stage.” Five essays from leading thinkers explore the country’s present and future. April 2010. Accessed November 30 2013. http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/winning_in_emerging_markets/south_korea_finding_its_place_on_the_world_stage
Monroe, Myles, Becoming a Leader: Discover the Leader You Were Meant to Be! New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2009, loc 177 (kindle)
Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography. London, UK: Sage Publications, 2012.
 Myles Monroe, Becoming a Leader: Discover the Leader You Were Meant to Be! (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2009), loc 177 (kindle)
 Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography (London, UK: Sage Publications, 2012), 92
 Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 119
 McKinsey & Company: Insights and Publications. “South Korea: Finding its Place on the World Stage.” Five essays from leading thinkers explore the country’s present and future. April 2010. Accessed November 30 2013. http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/winning_in_emerging_markets/south_korea_finding_its_place_on_the_world_stage
 Anthony Elliot, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009), 331
 David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000), 165-166
 David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, 172-173
 Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 42-43